Movie review: Oscar noms show they’re not short on creativity
The first thing to know about this year’s crop of Oscar-nominated animation and live-action shorts is that, taken together, they’re not all that short, weighing in at just about three hours in length.
But they are sure to be popular, as this program is annually the most attended event presented by the Detroit Film Theatre. The shorts will be playing at the Detroit Institute of Arts over the next three weekends — with a 20 minute intermission between animation and live action — but you might want to get tickets in advance.
As is usual, the five nominees in each category are the best of the best, though a few hover over the rest. Still, there are no clunkers this year. These entries come from around the world, yet, if anything, they show the universality of imagination, angst and creativity.
“Sanjay’s Super Team” comes from Pixar and was shown in theaters this year. It follows a young Indian boy who disturbs his father’s meditation only to get swept up in a grand fantasy that transforms Hindu deities into superheroes. It’s a bit surreal, as is “We Can’t Live Without Cosmos,” the story of two childhood friends training at a remote astronaut camp. When one gets sent up into space, the other must cope with being left behind, and what starts out comical turns oddly poignant.
Also poignant is “Bear Story,” in which a bear is kidnapped in front of his wife and daughter and taken to be exploited in a circus. The bear silently tells his tale through an intricate mechanical diorama that’s a wonder of animated construction.
And then there’s “Prologue,” a brutal, but beautifully drawn look at Spartan-Athenian men in battle, witnessed by a young girl. This one is bloody and some of the men are naked; it will be shown last, so children can be taken into the lobby.
High above them all, though — high above most filmmaking, to be honest — is Don Hertzfeldt’s brilliant “World of Tomorrow,” in which a little girl is whisked 227 years into the future by her third-generation clone to learn about the “outernet,” the successes and failures of time travel, the changing nature of love and much, much more.
Hertzfeldt, who’s been up for an Oscar before, works with stick figures and primitive forms, relying on wit, story and heart, but here he swirls in so many directions it’s beyond dazzling. Give him the statue.
Things get fairly serious in the live-action category, so “Ave Maria” is something of a relief. It follows a bickering Jewish family who somehow manage to crash their car into a Christian nunnery in the Palestinian territory. The nuns have taken a vow of silence, the Jews have a host of their own religious rules to play by and you wonder if these people will be able to transcend their own piety.
Far more tragic, and cruel is “Shok,” in which two Albanian boys bond over a bicycle even as their land is occupied by Serbs. It’s a tale of friendship and loyalty that turns dark, as does “Everything Will Be Okay,” in which a divorced German father tries to kidnap his hesitant daughter and flee the country. The final moments of this one are wrenching.
Speaking of wrenching, the toughest view of the series is easily “Day One,” in which a divorced Afghan-American woman goes through an unimaginably torturous first day on the job as an Army interpreter in Afghanistan. Exhaustion and a bomb explosion are the least of her worries after she’s pressed into action helping a bomb-maker’s pregnant wife.
More contained and personal is “Stutterer,” the story of a young British man with a terrible stutter who finds out the woman he’s been communicating with online for six months wants to meet him in person. What will he say when he can’t say anything? It’s a touching, and terrifying, fix.
It’s hard to say which of these five live-action shorts is the “best,” but this one is certainly the sweetest.
Tom Long is the former film critic at The Detroit News.
The 2015 Academy Award Nominated Short Films
Weekends at the Detroit Film Theatre through Feb. 14